WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes.
This time last year, Donald Trump triumphantly strode the Asia-Pacific stage on his way to completing the longest visit to the region by an American president in a quarter-century. During Trump’s stopover in Beijing, President Xi Jinping conferred an honour not granted to any of his predecessors since the normalisation of ties with the US – a state dinner inside the Forbidden City.
Twelve months later, at the height of Asia’s summit season, Trump is nowhere to be seen – either at the Asean meeting in Singapore or this weekend’s Apec summit in Papua New Guinea. He is the latest president to have passed on regional summits since Barack Obama cancelled on his Asean hosts in 2013 to deal with a government shutdown back home. In Trump’s absence, US Vice-President Mike Pence has staked out his master’s unilateralist “America First” stance on trade policy, coupling it with a full-throated defence of America’s “values-based” diplomacy and resistance to revisionism in the Indo-Pacific.
Pence’s robust reconfirmation of the US commitment to the region notwithstanding, Washington and Beijing appear to be exchanging positions of influence in the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, eight years after five Asean countries, with the forthright backing of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, decried Beijing’s assertive actions in the South China Sea at a regional summit in Hanoi, China’s neighbourhood diplomacy is at a sweet spot that is without precedent in the post-cold war era. Every major bilateral relationship that China shares in Asia is enjoying a cyclical upswing. From Japan to Asean to India, and with both Koreas thrown in for added measure, there is a firm floor beneath every major bilateral relationship and each is on a warming track.
To be clear, not every bilateral relationship is particularly warm.
Ties with Tokyo, especially, are just about stable and appear structurally unsound from a longer-term perspective. Additionally, each of these bilateral relationships has laboured through previous cycles of deterioration – foreshadowing similar difficulties in the future. In the case of Asean and China, these cycles can be traced to the 1992-1999 and 2009-2016 periods; in the case of India, 1998-2000, 2007-2010 and 2015-17; and in the case of Japan, virtually the entire period starting with the Koizumi premiership with brief exceptions in 2007-2008 and in early 2010.
That said, it is an utterly novel phenomenon in the region’s geopolitics for every major bilateral relationship that China shares to be simultaneously on a warming track. Previously, when relations with Asean and/or Tokyo were improving, Beijing’s ties with New Delhi were souring, and vice versa.
At no point in the past quarter-century have all three relationships individually attained a threshold level of stability and improved concurrently. That is, until now – which, in turn, provides a useful jumping-off point for creative approaches to neighbourhood diplomacy on Beijing’s part, should it be so disposed.
The drivers for this shift in preferences within Asia’s key players, particularly among the US’ non-allied regional partners, contain elements that are both enduring as well as transient.
Every Asean member country prioritises successful ties with China but not at the cost of capitulating – or having to witness its compatriots capitulate – to Beijing’s expansive sovereign rights claims to oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. With negotiations on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea finally on an accelerated track and China-Asean management of this body of water under steadier control, the door to win-win strategic engagement has been cracked wide open. The extent to which Beijing is forthcoming in its oil and gas joint development discussions with Manila will go a long way towards framing the extent and depth of this virtuous phase of win-win cooperation in China-Asean political relations.
Insofar as New Delhi is concerned, Beijing is a key pivot in India’s multi-aligned foreign policy strategy and successive governments across the aisle have seen greater wisdom in operating in the slipstream of Beijing’s meteoric rise than overtly aligning against it. Every Indian prime minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late 1990s has opened his term in office with an effusive outreach to Washington; every Indian prime minister since Vajpayee has tacked back midway through his term to calibrate the relationship with Beijing. Narendra Modi is no exception and Donald Trump’s gruff and, at times, mocking characterisation of the Indian leader has only accelerated the calibration this time around.
The challenges facing the US’ regional strategy in the Indo-Pacific, going forward, should not be minimised. At the time of his inauguration in January 2017, it was feared Trump’s personal disinterest and his foreign policy team’s hands-off approach towards Asian foreign relations (barring North Korean affairs) would diminish confidence in American resolve among its non-allied partners in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Over time, this irresolution and inattention would call into question America’s long-term staying power in a leadership role – in turn, opening the door to more amenable approaches on the part of these non-allied regional partners in their relations with Beijing. This is by and large how matters have played out over the past two years, with even the deeply conservative (and allied) Shinzo Abe government in Tokyo looking to hedge its bets. With two years still remaining in office, the Trump administration has its work cut out. Without a more constructive and economically engaged pan-regional strategy that moves markedly beyond its vapid “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” articulations, Trump’s non-attendance at future multilateral regional summits will be the least of Washington’s worries insofar as America’s influence in the region’s geopolitics is concerned. ■
Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington